Diversity—in curriculum, on bookshelves, and among educators—is an essential element of social justice in education. We absolutely cannot do social justice work in our schools without diverse representation in these areas. However, it is completely possible to achieve diversity goals without getting any closer to true social justice.
What is Social Justice?
Social justice means equal rights and fair access to resources across all social groups. It is the absence of structural inequality. When inequality is structural, it means that the likelihood of your ability to access resources and rights is dictated by the social groups you belong to–your race/ethnicity, your sex, your sexual or gender identity, your socioeconomic status, your religion, the language you speak, and your physical or mental ability. Social justice can be applied to education on two interconnected levels: 1) social justice in terms of students’ rights and resources and 2) social justice as an educational lens.
Social justice in education means an equitable education for ALL students, no matter their background, identity, or ability. To ensure every child has equal access, specific attention must be paid to each marginalized social groups’ unique needs.
Social justice education means teaching in a way that works to dismantle structural inequality. A social justice lens can be applied to any subject and informs instructional approach, classroom policies, and topics covered. A social justice education moves beyond simply valuing diversity and empowers educators to be fierce advocates for human and civil rights.
Diversity is Not Enough
I think back to the schools I attended in the 90s where “diversity” was celebrated all over the place. The message was basically: “We are all unique and we are all equal.” And, while that is certainly a positive message, it is the lowest bar possible. And most importantly, it obscured the less sunny reality of social inequality, structural biases, and rampant discrimination in our society. We never discussed present-day inequities. We covered the Civil Rights Movement, but the issues were always discussed as a thing of the past. (“That was bad, but we fixed it!) It wasn’t until college that I understood American inequities and even that was because I took a very specific set of sociology courses that the majority of college students do not choose.
Even in schools today, most diversity efforts stop short of discussing or addressing structural inequality. And that’s an issue because more diversity does not inherently lead to more equitable spaces. Why not? Diversity only makes a difference when it is paired with power in the hands of marginalized groups. Power means: Whose voices are heard/ignored? Whose interests/needs are centered? Who gets to make the final decisions?
When we think about diversity in the service of social justice and equity, it’s a very different, much more challenging conversation, but ultimately one that makes more than surface changes.
We Need to Talk About Social Inequality at School
Students need intentionally created conditions to discuss the inequities evident in the news and in their own lives. But talking about social inequality is difficult for many Americans. Why? We have very little practice. People in dominant groups can go their entire lives without discussing the inequalities they benefit from. I see two interconnected reasons for that: 1) We are the most individualistic society on Earth, so talking about inequality conflicts with core American values and ideologies. Because we want to believe that everyone is responsible for their own successes and failures, we do not have a clear concept of why or how structural inequality exists. And 2) most of the people who have the power to dismantle our severe societal inequalities have little to no interest in doing so. (More on that another time!)
Talking about social inequality is like airing our dirty laundry. It’s way more fun to just celebrate diversity. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to face ugly truths about our society, but it’s essential to do so if we don’t want that inequality to exist, which is a sentiment shared by the vast majority of Americans. We can’t heal unless we acknowledge our wounds. Ignoring a wound only makes us sicker.
Are Students Too Young to Handle This?
We tend to underestimate the ability of our students to comprehend tough social issues. Even our youngest students crave dialogue about complex social problems and they are looking to their teachers to help them understand. That is intimidating but is also an incredible opportunity to connect with students on an authentic level. I would argue that training students to have these conversations is as important as any other life lesson we want to impart to them. Young people need to be prepared for this. The venues in which they will have these conversations will only get bigger and scarier and more consequential–in college classes, with coworkers, in online communities. It’s our job as the adults in the room to allow them to grow these skills.
I taught college students for many years and they desperately needed to be introduced to these complex ideas earlier. It is not something that can be effectively taught in one class in one semester and college instructors often just don’t get enough time to build trust with their students. Elementary and secondary teachers have an awesome opportunity to prepare the next generation of students to become a highly effective force for positive social change.
Also remember, these issues are going to get brought up whether we want them to or not. We can either be caught off guard and probably handle it in a less than ideal way. Or, we can facilitate this discussion on purpose and feel prepared for it. When we create a space for these conversations to happen and approach them with a plan, of course we’ll do a better job.
We can use our powerful role in the classroom as a force for good by acknowledging inequalities and then exploring the social causes with your students. When we do this, we are moving beyond surface-level diversity and working towards a more just society.